Catching Up: “The Omen (1976)”

With classic horror films, it’s really a toss up on any given film’s effectiveness. Some can still scare you enough to make the viewing worth it, others, less so. Some just can’t do it at all. What once was effective is now only useful from a learning standpoint. And then there are those that were just so well done, any new viewer can feel the film’s desired effect, even after four decades.

The 20th Century Fox film “The Omen”, is a disturbing, suspenseful, and effective film that manages to work its way underneath ones skin.

This horror thriller stars Gregory Peck (“To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Twelve O’Clock High”), Lee Remick (“Nutcracker: Money, Madness & Murder”, “Days of Wine and Roses”), David Warner (“The Amazing World of Gumball”, “Ripper Street”), Billie Whitelaw (“Quills”, “The Krays”), Patrick Troughton (“Knights of God”, “Super Gran”), Martin Benson (“Casualty”, “Angela’s Ashes”), and Harvey Stephens (“The Omen (2006)”, “Gauguin the Savage”).

The film was directed by Richard Donner (“16 Blocks”, “Timeline”) and written by David Seltzer (“Cinema Verite”, “The Omen (2006)”).

The film originally opened on June 25, 1976. It would go on to be nominated for two Academy Awards, winning one, one Golden Globe Award, and one BAFTA Award among a few wins and several nominations.

I think I managed to miss this film. I can’t even fathom how, especially as I’ve made it a goal in life to watch as many classic horror films as I can, which I really thought was going well, but I did. As it turns out, it’s quite fortuitous that I managed to miss this film for as long as I did. This year saw the 40th anniversary of this film, which is something I also managed to miss, but have since (obviously) rectified. Then there’s the general fact that with this film, I’ve now hit a special number of posts. 666. I couldn’t resist. Could you? The fact that I could enjoy this film completely, is more than some cherry on top, but a sign that no matter the film’s age, it will always have the power to scare and unnerve some unsuspecting viewer.

I’m pretty certain, in so many ways, I went in thinking that this film would be much like “The Amityville Horror (1974)” or “The Exorcist”. When I watched both of those films I was largely bored and most definitely not scared in the least. I could see where the films might’ve been scary and bothersome once upon a time, but too much time had gone by. The things that made adults afraid could no longer hold sway. Fortunately, and this is part of what’s fun about watching older films and talking about them, I was proven wrong. I’ve found a horror film that made me proud of the impulse thrift store buy, and the fact that it exists at all.

So what did it for me? Everything that really makes this a mislabeled film. It’s labeled a horror film, but really, when you look at everything and analyze it, plus compare it to what’s still being done today (in the sloppiest of ways), it doesn’t at all fit the mold of a horror film. Somehow, like with “Silence of the Lambs”, it’s just been assigned this genre label by the masses, who are clearly not aware that there are in fact differences, and over time it’s just become the dominant genre identifier. Well, seeing as I definitely know better, I shall forever, and from now on in this piece, think of this film the way it should be. As a suspense thriller… with slight horror undertones.

You read that right, a suspense thriller. From the beginning of the film’s first few minutes it set out to put you on edge. The opening credits went on for, what, about three minutes? and in that time composer Jerry Goldsmith’s (“Mulan (1998)”, “Poltergeist”) creepy sounding score was able to begin working its way under your skin. Essentially it set you up (or it certainly notified you) of what was about to come. If you didn’t take that warning seriously, that was on you and probably for the better. Each moment, where something just seemed off but you couldn’t put your finger on it, or it seemed more like coincidence, had the right amount of emphasis on it. The build up for each disturbing moment was gradual. When you didn’t think it could get worse, it did. Event after event just packed a punch. Throw in a general, but captivating mystery, and there’s really no way you can lose focus.

One of those moments of gradual suspense building was when Peck and Remick were on their way to church. It seemed like a good idea to take Damien, but as it turns out, it wasn’t. It’s a slow build overall. You know it’s not going to go well, not simply because Whitelaw said as much, but because by now (damn you time) you know Damien isn’t who he seems. Hell, even time isn’t really to blame, the previous portions of the film are, which is a good thing. Anyway. You’re in the car and you’re headed to church. Bit by bit, all you have to do is watch Damien. He seems excited but slowly but surely, that changes. One aspect of this scene, which is really what brings it all together and makes it work so well, as well as the majority of the other sequences in this film, be they scary or just eerie, is the score. With horror, thrillers or combo films, score doesn’t typically do much but sound loud. Goldsmith’s score actually does so much more, and even though it does sound old, which is just due to the time it was made, it sounds great. This score he composed, particularly with this scene, begins slow and quite. You almost can’t hear it. As it goes along it gets louder and becomes something that itself is mysterious and ominous, signaling something eerie, but what? It’s this use of score that sort of preps you, but for what? After a beat, the score and the scene let loose! Assuming you’re fully into this film by this point, or any point, you’ll very well get that well deserved and developed jolt you asked for.

Another brilliant example of this, which seriously surprised me, is with the finale, but more specifically when Whitelaw’s Mrs. Baylock surprises Peck, and does all she can to prevent him from trying to kill Damien. It really is all about the execution. It actually all starts with Peck coming home. He’s walking through his house, and not only is he unsure of who is where, there’s a dog he must avoid. Going through this bit you have Goldsmith’s score, but also moments of silence that really allow for some fear and tension to build. Then, like Peck, we find ourselves staring down at a sleeping Damien. More of Goldsmith’s score begins playing as Peck feels around for what he’s hoping isn’t there and prove it’s all a madman’s ravings. This tense moment is perfect because somewhere you’re also hoping it’s not true, but you’re really just expecting what you’ve known for some time. The score’s efficacy comes from building to that ultimate reveal and then once you’ve seen it, you’re taken aback. The score stops. Then you get to ruminate on what you’ve just learned. Well, until Mrs. Baylock shows up. That’s where the fun begins and that’s how I actually found myself jumping a small bit. The fact that I can be slightly scared amazes me. But, it shows how deeply invested I got. Pretty damn amazing for a film this old to pull that off.

In some thrillers, building up and executing various sequences is enough. The story is being told and making you tense along the way. However, while this is an important factor, especially if you hope to enjoy the film even a little, there’s still one element that matters more, and makes the difference when it comes to what kind of film the overall finished product is.

The characters. Too often in thrillers, and more often than not, in typical horror films or horror thrillers, characters are just about second thoughts. They exist solely because a film has to have characters of some sort, and because of this, flimsy excuses for characters exist and you are thus never allowed to give even the slightest bit of a shit about them. Thankfully, Seltzer did his absolute best to bring a large focus on the principal characters. He made you care, find commonalities, and generally like them. In so many ways, these characters could be you, minus the supernatural evil. You weren’t simply treated to characters who reacted for the sake of the story, or grew out of some convenient line written in the script, but because there was a genuine reason too. There was so much off and perhaps this child was to blame, but something nagged at you and you couldn’t avoid it. In some ways, we saw Peck and Remick start down a road of paranoia and fear, which they themselves questioned as it seemed impossible for a small child to be at fault. It’s a major departure from the lively and joyous beginning they had. This character development may not be incredibly nuanced, but as far as performances and strong and compelling characters in a film of this nature, they rank pretty high up.

Whitelaw’s Mrs. Baylock, by comparison, is in her own class. She’s just creepy from the beginning. It’s not simply that she looks creepy, well, not at first, but because of her first interaction with Damien. If you didn’t already know that she was trouble, a single look and line told you as much. So did Goldmith’s score in that moment. By simply uttering, “Have no fear little one. I am here to protect thee.”, Whitelaw’s purpose was immediately known. Any other information about her character really needn’t be given. She protected Damien, which we see a few times, but are just viewed as intrusive, and rightly ignored by Peck and Remick. By the time the film gets midway through, she’s now creepy because of her appearance and overall being. It’s all in the facial expressions, or lack thereof. If I saw her, I’d be fearful. Whether this look is partly natural or created through makeup effects, it worked for the benefit of the film.

Another major instance that worked, which wasn’t just confined to Whitelaw, is when there’s major focus on the eyes. These shots convey so much. Remick’s eyes have fear. Peck’s show shock and disbelief. Whitelaw’s show evil. While none of these feeling’s are hard to notice, there’s something about this approach that punctuates the effort being made. You get the opportunity to feel it. The eyes have a powerful gaze that seems to permeate beyond the screen. In any other creative’s hands, this could’ve backfired and looked silly, but here, it underscores the film’s overall creepy factor and the disturbing nature of the given moment.

Older suspense thriller’s are tough to get into and find as effective as they once were. It’s great to be able to say that you’ve seen it, but if it doesn’t leave some kind of positive impression, does it matter? It’s one of the hardest parts about being a cinephile or a lover of a certain type of genre. People have long considered this a classic, even a mislabeled classic, and when you hear that for so long, you tend to just go with it. Believing otherwise might be stupid. Until you see the film. With older film’s you’re never truly certain what you’re going to get. If you’re fortunate enough, you’ll discover one that still has the capacity to move you the way it should, and hopefully, become a film that will forever be considered a favorite. It’s one way we’re able to remember so many older films, and prove that sometimes the old way of filmmaking may in fact be the best.


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